"Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
Fareed speaks with William Dalrymple, author of the new book ‘Return of A King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42,’ about what history can teach us about the current conflict in Afghanistan.
What do you think retreat is going to look like, based on history?
Well, the British retreat from Kabul really couldn't have gone worse. There’s every reason to hope this one would go a bit better, not least because you've got air transport. In 1841, there was a huge uprising against the British. It began in the south, in Helmand. It spread north. And, very soon, the British were surrounded in the same cities in the sense in which American troops are surrounded today, in Kandahar and Jalalabad and many in Kabul, a small area of Kabul, a fortress against a largely hostile, rural hinterland.
The British lost their supplies very early in this. They had stupidly kept both their ammunition and their food in outlying forts…The retreat from Kabul that followed began on January 6, 1842, and is one of the great imperial disasters – 18,500 men, women and children, of whom only about 5,000 were British. The rest were Sepoys from North India, from Bihar, from Uttar Pradesh. They marched out into the snow. They had no idea how to cope in winter warfare. They weren’t equipped or clad or trained for it. And six days later, one man made it through to Jalalabad. Everyone else was either killed, enslaved or taken hostage.
Now, the hostile forces that you describe are in, as you say, the south of Afghanistan, Kandahar. This is precisely the same problem that the United States faces, which is that the area of Afghanistan that is hostile to America and to Karzai and the government we've put in place is the Pashtun area, the heartland. Why is it that the Pashtun…who opposed the British opposing the U.S.?
Well, it's history repeating itself very, very closely. And I only wish I'd been able to give a copy of this book 10 years ago to George W. Bush or to Tony Blair, because I think apparently in the British Tory Party, there was a tradition that you keep well out of Afghanistan until even the 1950s, when Sir Alec Douglas-Hume took over the keys of Downing Street from Harold Macmillan, the old man who said, “let me give you one piece of advice, young man,” and looking down from his Times he said “as long as you don't invade Afghanistan, you'll probably do fine.”
And we kind of wish that that folk wisdom had lasted another 30 years or 40 years. We could have done with that. If you invade Iraq, you can run off with the oil revenues. But if you invade Afghanistan, you always just pour money in. It's a huge economic hole in the budget. And the kind of low level insurgency which the Afghans are so brilliant at – just a slow attrition of foreign forces – in the end, everyone throws up their hands and says, well, it's just not worth it.